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July 15, 2024

Time Traveler 06

By Sand Pilarski

By Monday morning I had decided that the difference in greeting guests that made me speak irritably to Valentine Teshenko was due to reaction. He made me react, in curiosity, in fear, in surprise. Having had such emotions provoked made me angry. Another reaction. There was the kernel of it: for a moment or two here and there my reactions had been out of my control, something I didn't like much at all.

I plunged into my classes with a vengeance, immersing myself in images of deity, the funerary practices of primitive peoples, and the opening of the treasure chests of students' minds.

When classes were done for the afternoon, I headed back to the office to be available for students dropping by with paperwork, and departmental goblins bearing paperwork, and then there would be all the extra paperwork that is generated by quizzes and essays and exams. I didn't really hate doing the paper chase things, as long as I could actually get some time to focus on them. All too often, though, I'd no sooner start on an interesting piece of paper than I'd be interrupted by something else.

The head of the department, the louse-worthy Mark Fatzer, had returned my projected costs sheet as though it was a student assignment, writing on it in red ink that I needed to rethink what supplies I anticipated needing the coming year, and so I was on the computer dredging for articles on archeological finds that would justify my request for updated reference books. And was interrupted, naturally, this time by a delivery girl from a flower shop. "Dr. Renoir?" the girl smiled broadly. "This was sent to you." She handed me a little vase with a blue delphinium and some baby's breath, and a card attached to it with a matching light blue ribbon.

"Thank you," I said, watching her grin. She had to be a student here, and she'd just scooped the university gossip line for the day. Professor Renoir has an admirer, and I know who it is!

Delphinium, eh? A tall spire of a plant, a spike of a flower. I can guess this one without opening the card, I thought. Classic phallic symbol, Radigan, you gave yourself away. With a smirk I opened the little card, and my heart jumped -- in reaction again -- the flowers weren't from Radigan.

"When I saw these flowers," the card read in neat handwriting, "I thought of the color of your eyes. I want to apologize again for frightening you. Please come listen to me play sometime." Signed by Valentine Teshenko.

That importuning -- audacious -- uppity little -- street musician! I stared at the card, open-mouthed with astonishment. Margaret Wills poked her head in the door with a smug smile. "Mmm, flowers on Monday! Who's the lucky guy, Augusta?" She must have been hot on the heels of the delivery girl, following her like a beagle, the nosy twit.

"Just some idiot. Nobody, really, it's just like -- a joke or something."

"Well, let me read the card then."

"No!" I stuffed the card in my pocket.

"Ah-haa," she chimed accusingly. "That's what I thought. And look at you, blushing. Must be a cutie." She clicked back down the hall to Fatzer's office.

The card was burning a hole in my pocket. I took it out and read it again. "Please come hear me play." Gods in a line-up. Valentine Teshenko, what a name. Sounds like an eccentric artiste. Of course, look who's talking about odd names. Time to drop it and get back to work.

Five minutes later I began to snicker at myself for having been infected with Radigan's phallic perception of things. Maybe he does have a point, I thought, so to speak. Concentration was an elusive state today, now wasn't it?

I printed out my list of articles about new digs and the discoveries associated with them, and prepared to re-submit my request for monies along with a nice memo explaining said request. Pointless paperwork, this; I wasn't going to get as much as I was asking for, but I'd get enough because I was asking for more than I knew I could get. Sounds senseless, is senseless. I called up a word processing program on the screen, and began to type, watching the words appear like magic.

We take our computers for granted nowadays, those of us who use them. Although I am by no means a tech wizard, I make sure I have a good computer both here in the office and at home. Good meaning fast, with enough more than enough memory to hold all my paperwork and reference articles, and a processor good enough to run the most complex video games. I don't play the games, but I'm not interested in waiting around for information to get to me. I want the New York Times and I want it now, not in two minutes and ten seconds while it gets done loading to my machine.

The Times, The Defiance Crescent (so that I can know what's happening in Kimsky and Burlie's part of the world), and The San Jose Mercury News must also be part of the high speed morning scan. In the evening, I check e-mail that will be from regular correspondents in Ohio, Michigan, Los Angeles, and Washington, not to mention the secondary e-mail address that I give out on a regular basis to students and faculty members. I don't really need a home encyclopedia, a TV, a radio; I rarely need stamps and envelopes and I hardly ever use the phone. The pencil in a cup on my desk is so old and unused that the wood around the point is dark with oxidation, and the eraser stiff and dry. My pens last a long time; I don't think I've run out of ink once since I got my first word processor years ago and if I have to replace them, it's because they were lost or pinched by a jealous co-worker. About the only thing I write is my signature. My handwriting now would have earned me a "D" in penmanship class in grade school.

Now there's a word rapidly becoming arcane: penmanship.

En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... every six weeks starting with the first day of school we would receive two free items of student supply: a yellow tablet with lines drawn across it in blue, and a yellow number two pencil. Those were the acceptable implements of a schoolgirl or boy for use in math class, english class, spelling, geography. If you used them up before the end of the six week grading period, you had better have a darned good explanation for yourself. (Funny, I don't ever recall anyone in my classes for eight years who lost a tablet, though pencils sometimes went missing.)

We had the horrible penmanship class. The proper way to make the Palmer school letters was posted in every classroom in the elementary school around the walls above the blackboards (of which every class had two walls full) and that was the only accepted script. Printed perpendicular to the blue lines on the paper, or later, when we were older, written longhand at what must have been a sixty degree slant, all the words were expected to be by the book in their representation. I found it hard, and was never able to get an "A" no matter how hard I tried. Fortunately we were done with that torture by the time we got to fifth grade. Use of ink pens was forbidden for assignments until we got to sixth grade because if a mistake was made, one had to be able to erase it, and erasable pens had not yet been invented.

My parents had two typewriters: an old black Underwood with a steeply stepped keyboard and beautiful lines in its steel body and a key action that was as silky as a banana-caramel custard pie, but that sadly, had a few keys that didn't really work, and a Smith-Corona with austere 'modern' curves and stiff keys. I was forbidden to play with either, though my father consented to my use of the Smith-Corona when I was nine only if I promised to use the correct fingers for the keys. I used that machine through college, cursing and sweating through assignments and papers, because there simply was no eraser (even the so-called typewriter erasers) that could do a neat job of correcting mistakes.

Math classes were what really used up tablet paper in those days. Every mathematical problem was expected to be written out, each step in full. All the numbers in long division. All the columns in multiplication. By the time I got to Physics classes in high school, mathematical calculations could take up an entire page or more of notebook paper.

Of course by then we were using slide rules for the bulk of calculations, and only had to demonstrate the proficiency in math on certain problems. You know, I think that back then I even had some glimmer of how a slide rule works. All I remember now is that you would line up a number on the top with the number one on the slide, and then move the clear reader sliding doohicky over the number on the slide that you wanted to multiply, and the top bar would miraculously give the answer. Logarithms. I think I remember that I sort of understood for a time how they were explained to the class.

What I am getting at is that there were no such things as handheld calculators in the days of my childhood, no PDA's, no computers, none in the world whatsoever except a giant adding machine that took up rooms upon rooms in some secret laboratory, and of course, the ones in the comic books and science fiction magazines.

When I was in college, the engineering students used to carry enormous elaborate expensive slide rules around with them in rich leather cases, and math problems in Chem class were normally solved to three significant figures -- nice language for what we would call now 'an estimate'.

My first roommate was a computer science major, and she used to spend hours trying to get simple programs in the proper order of binary code to run on the university's computers, the labs for which consumed an entire building. The programs were formulated on stiff paper cards with little holes punched in them, and sometimes she would carry shoeboxes full of them and stay up all night waiting for a successful program to finish running.

In our junior year, I happened to meet her as our paths crossed on campus. (She'd moved out after the first year to share a room with another dorm-mate, someone whose relationships were less stressful; James would come looking for me sometimes, and if he didn't find me, would berate her until she told him where I was. Guess I should have seen something coming even back then, huh?) At that chance encounter, she showed me what her parents had bought her. They were rich, and the new toy was a handheld calculator, about the size of a telephone receiver, and cost about a hundred dollars. I was amazed. The hours of work that thing could have cut out when I was taking my required science and math classes!

At the mountain Wikami, the people of clay lure the Serpent of Knowledge up out of the deep waters of the sea. "Come," they call to him, "we have built a great hall for you to join us so that we can celebrate with you, for you have taught us how to make fire!" Umai-hulya-wit coils himself in the hall, but the fit is so tight that he cannot find the door to return to the outside. Oh, treacherous people of clay! They set fire to the wood and straw of the hall and burn the Serpent of Knowledge. Umai-hulya-wit explodes, and his body scatters, taking with it all manner of songs, magic secrets, crafts, and ceremonies.

In the scorched ruins of the serpent's hide, the people of clay find the most precious organ and tear open the heart to reveal a tiny magic stone -- the computer chip. They use it to make televisions and calculators and machines that fly and machines that swim, and they are proud of themself for tricking Umai-hulya-wit and bringing so many things to so many people.

But who now can sing the songs that were scattered? Who remembers the special dance that brought the healing rains? What are the names of the stars and why have they gone?

The last time I wrote a letter by hand was to my father before he died. The last long distance voice call I made was to Kimsky to tell her of a change in my e-mail address when I changed providers.

Providers, e-mail, surge protectors, RAM, processors, bytes, URL's, flat-screens -- words that would have had no meaning only fifty years ago, or at least, not the meanings they have today.

Do I think we've lost a lot of knowledge even while gaining technology? Oh yes, I do. Do I think that we ought to go back to a simpler time when people could do math in their heads and you had to keep an eye on your washing machine and oven so as to turn them off manually instead of letting their little computers take care of it? Not often enough to answer "Yes."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-22
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